“In your teen years, you can hear or see almost anything, so long as you poach, steal or eavesdrop it, but very little that is real is addressed directly to you. I want to address people directly.” – Melvin Burgess.
Melvin Burgess is a trailblazing author of many celebrated books for young people, including the Carnegie Medal winning Junk and the most recent Kill All Enemies. He is visiting Siberia at the end of October to take part in the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Krasnoyarsk in partnership with the Krasnoyarsk Book Fair.
EWWC: During the ‘Style vs Content’ debate at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh August 2012 you talked of the need for, above all, “communication” between the writer and the reader. Can you explain a little more about what you meant by this?
MB: At the Writers’ Conference quite a lot of people were saying “I only write for myself”; but I feel quite strongly that when you’re writing it is an act of communication. To make out that your readership are merely stray passengers is, to me, disingenuous. It’s a sort of ‘romantic artist’ concept – that writing is merely an act of self-expression. It is to some degree, but really I feel that kind of statement is a cop-out, it drives me mad.
In writing for teenagers, the communication is of often an attempt to verify – to provide something that people recognise in themselves when they read it. It’s such a wonderful feeling, when you pick up a book and you recognise something of yourself in it, and you realise that you’re not alone, it’s not just you – that you are actually part of something bigger than just yourself. During those teenage years you’re really ripe for that kind of self-reflection; you’re changing so much and becoming the person you’re going to be.
In British society nobody seriously tries to stop teens having access to most of the information they want on the internet and the TV, but we do have a nominal censorship system in which you can’t go and see adult films until you’re 18, and certain programmes aren’t shown on TV till after 11pm on the nominal notion that teenagers will all be in bed by then. But we all know they’re not going to be in bed and they’re all going to watch the programmes anyway – it’s just a ridiculous sop to ourselves. And it is very difficult to make accurate films and programmes for teenagers. If you made something which depicted what was going on in the head of the average 14 year old it would be an ‘18’ film, and in any case you’d never get the funding to make it.
EWWC: Do you think that’s important? That art and media are created and aimed specifically at the teen years?
MB: Yes I do. Of course it’s fine for teenagers to read adult stuff, but it’s important that you get the chance to read about being that age as well. ‘Teenage fiction’ was quite a new genre when I started writing – it still is very new. What I wanted to do was speak to and address people directly, and hopefully chime with their experience.
EWWC: Your work is famously frank, looks subjects full in the face, and you seem to have an innately – perhaps not particularly traditionally “English”, unembarrassed sense of how to talk about sex, drugs, violence etc. Have you always been like this?
MB: I don’t quite know where that came from. I suppose I partly enjoy being provocative; but I don’t see the point of being provocative just for the sake of being provocative. When I found myself writing for teenagers it became apparent how little teen literature there was about; how hemmed around it all was with all sorts of cautions and warinesses, and how very different material for teens was from the way teens essentially are. Writing books for teenagers is just such a golden opportunity to say, ‘why don’t we have a look at this stuff honestly?’ There are so many things that adults are wary of as regards teenagers; we seem to have such a traumatised view of them.
EWWC: Do you think we’re wrong in that – to be traumatised by teens?
MB: Yes, I do really. I think when my books started attracting that kind of controversial attention, a sensible reviewer said ‘it’s a question of trust really – do you trust your teenager to be able to deal with these issues? And to make sense of them?’ It’s all about trust, in the end.
I think part of the reason people get upset about the way I present teenagers in my books, is that we look back at our own teen years with a sense of horror. If you ask most people ‘Did you enjoy being a teenager?’, I think most of us would say ‘no’. I think it has a lot to do with the pressures and school and the fact that you’re moving away from your family life but on the other hand you have no money so you’re completely helpless and you’ve got no voice and no vote. I’m sure it could be better. If we decided to design schools and towns to be teenager friendly I’m sure the experience of being a teenager could be a whole lot different and a whole lot better.
EWWC: Your most recent book, Kill All Enemies, grew out of a project where you talked to young people in Pupil Referral Units to discover the stories behind their current situation. It seems to me that for you, the political is always personal; that you are overtly concerned with the effects political choices have on people’s lives, in ways which they are powerless to influence. Does that chime with your sense of how literature can be political? Is this part of a political stance – a desire to challenge and ultimately change the status quo, particularly where young people are concerned?
MB: Yes, by and large it is. Kill All Enemies is dramatised and it is a work of fiction. It’s written from three different points of view, and presents the stories of three different kids. I did go and talk to a lot of people. The rationale behind doing it this way was two-fold. Firstly, people’s stories are so great, and novelists rarely draw from life in that way – they might make people a bit like their mates and so forth – but I’m talking about actually going out into life and talking to people. You get the events, the setting, character, voice – it’s all there for you. And secondly, it’s about finding people who have been demonised by society. Everyone thinks they’re a waste of time, just trash – but actually, they’re proper heroes. All three of those kids, particularly the character that Billie was based on, and Rob – they’re heroic, in the stuff they had to deal with. They just didn’t have any time for school.
That’s the thing with political work – it’s giving a voice to people. That’s what Dickens did, what Solzhenitsyn did; most of the classic novels we think of as political were about voicing problems or giving people a voice. The novels and books that I admire the most nearly always have something political about them. Even if it’s just the act of giving a voice or exploring sexual politics, I think they are the most important works of art.
EWWC: The Guardian said about you “He’s courted controversy for more than a decade with his bestselling tales of underage sex and teenage heroin addicts…” At the EWWC debate in August on Censorship Today you talked of the ‘press hysteria’ surrounding your book Doing It, which aroused an attempted explanation from journalists present there. Can you talk a little more about the press reaction to your “controversial” works and the wider, reader / gatekeeper reaction?
MB: The ‘gatekeepers’ – librarians, parents, teachers – are not necessarily concerned with what kids read but they are concerned with what they as adults are allowed to let kids read. There’s always someone who’s going to jump on the ‘should kids be reading this?’ bandwagon, particularly in the local and national press. There are quite a few school governors who actively want to censor what kids read. It might appear on the face of it that no one takes not much notice of hem, but they do have a lot of power.
A lot of the controversy about my early books was precisely because fiction for Young Adults was such a new thing, which had itself grown out of children’s books. You’d never get that level of public debate or controversy these days because it’s now an established genre; the argument about whether or not there should be books about those issues for people of that age has been won. However, people are still very uncomfortable about teenagers, and uncomfortable about approaching, for example, teenage sexuality, drugs and so on. Of course, it’s wonderful if your book becomes the centre of a national debate; but there’s no point in trying to be controversial for its own sake.
EWWC: So the trail has definitively been blazed?
MB: It’s a much more open landscape now, but there are still areas which people are uncomfortable about. I wrote a book dealing with child abuse (Nicholas Dane) that people found very difficult. I had one very senior person in the library service saying ‘It’s a really great book Melvin, but I can’t think of any kids I’d like to lend it to’ just because people are so traumatised about that whole subject. It’s only in the past 20 or so years that people admit that abuse happens – previously it was all shuffled under the carpet. Now people are happy to admit that it happens, but they don’t want to think about how or why it happens. For example, in the current scandal, which is Jimmy Savile – he was ‘hiding in full view’, as they say. These people are so manipulative; they actually groom, not just their victims, but the people around them too, so they don’t get shopped. That’s an interesting subject for a novel. People would rather think abusers are simply dreadful monsters. But how and why did these things happen? No-one really wants to look at that.
Someone once reviewed one of my books and said ‘to understand is to forgive’. I’m not sure if that’s wholly true, but I’d certainly rather attempt to understand dreadful things, because very often you can see another side to it. That’s what novels do better than any other art form – they allow you to get inside people’s heads, and from there you can actually come up with real insights into what’s going on with people, and start to ‘understand your enemy’.
EWWC: You’re travelling to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia next week for a series of Edinburgh World Writers Conference events. Russia looms large in the world literary consciousness; do you have a favourite Russian novel or writer?
MB: I love Gogol very much. And I was very much influenced by Gorky – I really love his plain simplicity. You don’t hear very much about Gorky these days, but he was the proper master to me. I also have a collection of short pieces by the Russian absurdist writer Kharms; they’re almost Pythonesque, wonderful. I once shared a house with a lecturer in Russian. He had lots of old Writers’ Union magazines from the Soviet days, and I turned one of the pieces I read there into a radio play. It was the very first thing I ever had accepted – The Bald Angel, which was based on a Russian short story.
EWWC: And finally … If you had to be exiled permanently to one of the
EWWC cities – Edinburgh, Berlin, Cape Town, Toronto, Krasnoyarsk, Cairo, Jaipur, Beijing, Izmir, Brussels, Lisbon, Port of Spain (Trinidad), St Malo, Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne – which would you choose and why?
There are some lovely places there. But if I was going to be trapped forever I think I’d have to say Edinburgh – just because it wouldn’t really be exile. In a great many ways I’d love to move somewhere other than Britain, but in the end I wouldn’t do it because I’m a writer. In the end you’ve got to write about your own culture otherwise you’re not writing about anything. So on balance, it would have to be Edinburgh.